In the February 12 and 19 issues of The New Yorker, David Grann gives us the fascinating story of Henry Worsley, a modern arctic explorer. In the footsteps of his hero, Ernest Shackleton, Worsley made three trips to Antarctica, each time traversing the continent on skis and crampons, hauling a 300-pound sled behind him. Tragically, the third expedition—which Worsley carried out by himself and nearly completed—claimed his life.
The piece is beautifully, captivatingly written. It helps that Worsley is a nearly picture-perfect protagonist—a genuine pioneer and an old soul.
There is so much in the story, and I’m sure so much that isn’t told. If you can spare an hour, I highly recommend the read.
But one of the smaller details that interested me came from Worsley’s first quest across the frozen land at the bottom of the world. Along with two other men, he had to prepare for at least a nine-week journey. No supplies were dropped along the way and no delivery system had been arranged. So the question must arise: What does one take along?
Worsley estimated that the journey would take nine weeks. Each of the men would be limited to about three hundred and ten pounds of provisions, including a sled, and so they whittled down their kit to the essentials. Worsley packed his portion of the food, which was sealed in ten bags—one for each week of the journey, plus an extra in case of emergency. His clothing included two pairs of pants, a fleece shirt, a down jacket with a hood, gloves, a neck gaiter, a face mask, two pairs of long johns, and three pairs of socks. He brought cross-country skis and poles; for climbing, he carried crampons and ropes. As the only member of the team with first-aid training, he transported the medical bag, which contained antibiotics, syringes, splints, and morphine. He made room for his diary and a copy of “The Heart of the Antarctic.” And he carefully stored what he considered the most vital piece of equipment: a satellite phone with solar-powered batteries, which would allow the men not only to record short audio dispatches but also to check in every day with an A.L.E. operator and report their coördinates and medical condition. If the team failed to communicate for two consecutive days, A.L.E. would dispatch a search-and-rescue plane—what Worsley called “the most expensive taxi ride in the world.”
The men permitted themselves the luxury of iPods, as well as a deck of cards and a few mementos. Worsley carried an envelope filled with notes from family and friends, which Joanna had given him to open when he needed encouragement. In his front pocket, he had tucked away one more precious object: the brass compass that Shackleton used on his expedition. Alexandra Shackleton had asked Worsley to bring it with him, hoping that, this time, it would reach the South Pole.
It’s an intriguing list. With the party-game question—What three things would you want with you on a desert island?—circling in the back of my mind, here we have adventurers actually faced with such a vital, potentially deadly decision.
Food, minimal clothing, skis, and climbing equipment; a basic medical kit, a satellite phone, an iPod, cards, and family notes and momentos; Shackleton’s compass, a diary, and one book for pleasure—and inspiration.
It’s a pretty bare list, and also pretty telling. There are the Maslow’s Heirarchy-type objects (i.e., food, clothes, and medicine); there is emergency equipment; and then there are sentimental momentos and keepsakes. Worsley didn’t need to take Shackleton’s compass, but the significance of taking it to the South Pole proved more empowering than adding extra food. Likewise, a book and an iPod, to remain sane in the endless white darkness, also could have been left behind. And yet, like notes from home—memories of an outside life and relationships—such things prove indispensable. Perhaps we really need such tokens to survive.
Shackleton himself brought a Bible and a flag with him on his journey across the ice. I can’t imagine his disappointment when, after a failed mission and finding his crew trapped, skeletal, and close to death, he left the Bible behind.
Shackleton’s chief surgeon brought cocaine along—allegedly to cure snow blindness. When British astronaut Piers Sellers traveled into space on the shuttle Atlantis, he brought along a piece of wood from the apple tree that helped Sir Isaac Newton explain gravity. Lewis and Clark, in addition to canoefuls of clothing, food, and arms, also brought a bunch of science equipment, including a microscope.
When we think about what is essential, what we would bring with us when traveling hundreds or thousands or millions of miles away, the answers are revealing.
It isn’t just about food and warmth. It’s about memory and inspiration. It’s about faith and purpose.
For human beings pushes the edges of mortality and will, relics and reminders aren’t just luxuries that can be spared. They may be essential not only for our well-being, but for our survival.